Category: words

why I dropped a “free education now” banner at my University of Toronto graduation ceremony

In June 2013, I graduated with a Master’s degree in the Sociology of Education from the University of Toronto. At the graduation ceremony in Convocation Hall, I walked across the stage, shook hands with one of the deans, walked to the front of the stage and unzipped my graduation gown. I pulled each side of the gown open as far as I could, and let the 6 foot by 4 foot banner unfurl from my shoulders. It read “FREE EDUCATION NOW” in bold, red letters.

free education

At first, there was no response. I turned and faced the right side of the auditorium, then slowly turned to face the left side of the auditorium. I expected to be booed at and pulled off stage by security at any second, but what happened instead was remarkable.

As the room full of 1,500 people started to notice the banner, loud applause and cheering erupted. People pointed, waved, took pictures. But more than anything, they cheered and clapped. As I turned around to face the alumni and professors seated on stage, so that they too could see what the banner read, I saw confusion and shock, but what I remember seeing most were smiles. I turned around again to face the auditorium full of people, stood for a few seconds more, and then walked off stage to take my diploma which, to my surprise, was given to me.

Over the next few days, a photo of the banner drop was shared hundreds of times on Facebook and Twitter by student groups across Canada, the US, South America, and Europe. I saw a lot of supportive words and excitement, and I also saw some comments questioning the effectiveness of individual acts of protest.

Since then, I haven’t written about why I dropped the banner or what I hoped it would accomplish. I want to start off by saying that I was sure the spectacle in itself wouldn’t accomplish much, but that it would certainly generate visibility and discussion on the topic of free university tuition. On a personal level, it felt absolutely hypocritical to have spent my years at the University of Toronto discussing the benefits of free post-secondary education and the potential for education to be the single greatest equalizing force in society, only to silently accept my degree in education at one of the most expensive universities in the country, in the province with the highest tuition.

During my time at the University of Toronto, I was elected to represent the 14,000 graduate students at U of T on the executive of our Graduate Students’ Union (GSU). I took this job seriously and integrated it into most aspects of my academic work and personal life. While working for the GSU, I learned incredible lessons in student union organizing, mobilizing tactics, and how decisions are made at the University of Toronto. I organized campaigns, film screenings, talks, and delivered speeches to U of T’s highest decision making body, the Governing Council. I enjoyed my time with the GSU more than many things I’ve done in my life so far, and I will take those lessons learned with me throughout all I do.

While working for the GSU, I took courses at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education that focused on the role of education in society and how to improve this role. In a paper I wrote in 2012 for a graduate course on Frantz Fanon I discuss how broader understandings of violence can be used to further student union goals:

As a student union organizer, I am particularly interested in how students can employ a Fanonian understanding of violence that includes violence as spiritual, emotional, and mental. I wonder how we can develop a student movement that is concerned with large-scale social transformation rooted in both small and large acts. As Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth, “Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it” (145). In relation to the present-day student movement then, we must understand our mission broadly as a struggle against the forces of the capitalist and colonial state.

I also wrote about the Quebec student movement and what lessons students in Ontario could learn from it:

The recent Quebec student movement is one of the most relevant examples of how local assemblies and direct forms of democracy can yield great successes for students. In response to the Liberal government’s proposal to implement an 82% tuition fee increase, residents of Quebec joined Quebec students in widespread strikes and protests that lasted for several months earlier this year. As a result of this mobilization, rooted entirely in local assemblies and direct democracy, Quebec students won on a number of fronts. Students in this province continue to pay the lowest tuition costs in Canada, and were also successful in overturning severe emergency legislation in the form of Bill 78, which passed to outlaw dissent.

Throughout my graduate degree, I spent time thinking about how student union organizing at U of T and throughout Quebec had succeeded in furthering anti-capitalist principles, but how it had failed, in large part, in furthering anti-colonial principles. Since my graduation ceremony, I have been paying attention to how student union organizing at U of T has taken on more active student involvement in university governance, and the degree to which local assemblies have been used as spaces for students to come together outside of the classroom to discuss the conditions of their study and to make binding decisions about how to transform these conditions.

The gains of the student movement at the University of Toronto and throughout Quebec are many. But it is only accurate to say that such gains were made as a result of revolutionary class politics resistance. Neither of these movements can purport to have had anti-colonial goals or been based on an anti-colonial pedagogy. In many instances, there was negotiation with the state and with university administrators and the focus of these negotiations was primarily on class-relations.

Since dropping that banner, I have been trying to re-imagine the function of the student union as integrally connecting class-based student demands to the larger context of a racist, patriarchal, and colonial settler state, all the while acknowledging the colonizing function of the university itself. Free education now would certainly be a step in the right direction, but even with that huge achievement, the struggle will have only started.


recap: The Great Pittsburgh Spelling Bee of 2013

bee poster by mark

bee poster by mark

This was such a fun event. My friend Mark Sepe and I acted on his idea to have a spelling bee. He’d been wanting to organize one for a while, and when he told me about it, I was like WE HAVE TO DO THIS.

We held it at Assemble on a Friday night. Mark and I acted as the judges. About 30 contestants participated and another 20 or so people came just to check it out and watch the bee go down. We raised over $200 from the event – 40% went to the 1st place winner and 60% went to the Literary Arts Boom (LAB), a free after-school arts program for youth that focuses on writing. Paula Levin is the lead experimentalist at LAB and was amazing to work with. She coordinated having us use the space and was so wonderful and happy with the outcome of the event.

There were 3 winners – 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place, each receiving a reclaimed trophy and prize. 1st place got cash, trophy, and a bouquet of flowers, 2nd got a gift certificate at Lili cafe and a few graphic novels, and 3rd got a gift certificate for Mind Cure records. Thanks to these awesome local businesses for donating to the bee!

Oh, and 1st place winner was determined by the misspelling of the word “eleemosynary.”

1st place winner

1st place winner

1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners

1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners

building feminist resistance through zine-making

Published in the October issue of Broken Pencil magazine:

participants in the She Said Boom zine making workshop // photo by Amy Egerdeen

participants in the She Said Boom zine making workshop // photo by Amy Egerdeen

Building Feminist Resistance Through Zine-Making
by Erin Oh

“She said boom” are 3 simple words that, for us, mean being responsible for your own pocket-sized revolution, and that one’s exasperation with what is false can be said aloud: “I say boom, you say boom, she said boom!”
– Caroline Azar of Fifth Column

Throughout the winter of 2012 a number of hateful incidents at the University of Toronto led me to begin thinking about how to build feminist resistance movements to structural oppression and the role that zine-making can have in building these movements. Specifically, I began thinking about how to use zines to talk about the connection between individual acts of hate, white supremacy and patriarchy.

These hateful incidents were university sponsored Men’s Rights Association events. One event featured rape apologist Warren Farrell, who is well known for saying, “before we called it rape, we called it exciting.” Another event featured a self-proclaimed anti-feminist English professor who blames women for keeping men out of the humanities. Finally, at a commemorative event for the women killed at the Polytechnique Massacre in Montreal, men’s rights activists interrupted a woman who was speaking, attempted to grab the microphone, laughed, and photographed us.

University administration responded to each of these incidents by supporting the men’s rights activists, citing their “right to free speech.” I was enraged. If the University of Toronto wanted to protect hate under the guise of freedom of speech, then we needed to build feminist resistance in response. Our movement would need to address the rhetoric of the MRAs – namely that men are oppressed and that feminism is responsible – but it would also need to address the larger societal structures that make it possible for men’s rights activists to be taken seriously in the first place.

To build this movement, student union organizers and activists met over the course of the winter, along with community members and women who had been targeted by men’s rights activists. We decided that our response would include direct, militant action, along with communicating feminist resistance through zine making. These conversations led me to get in touch with GB Jones and Caroline Azar of 1980s feminist punk band Fifth Column, whom I had met the previous summer at the premiere film screening of “She Said Boom: The Story of Fifth Column.”

I asked GB and Caroline if they would be part of a feminist zine symposium, and when they said yes, I reached out to the most talented feminist artists I knew in Toronto to help organize the event: Amy Egerdeen of Nightjar Books and Women Moving Forward, Shannon Gerard of The Book Bakery and OCAD, and Tara Bursey of the Toronto Zine Library and the Textile Museum.

Together, we organized the “She Said Boom: Feminist Zine Making” Symposium, a free three-day event with a keynote talk, led by GB Jones and Caroline Azar, that focused on feminist zine culture. The symposium culminated in a daylong feminist zine making workshop at The Book Bakery printmaking studio. That same night, we had a gallery launch party for our collectively produced zine.

The zine-making workshop brought together 20 people, most of who had never met before, to make a zine about our experiences with feminism. For the first part of the workshop, we introduced ourselves and discussed what feminism means to us and how we have come to identify as feminists. Specifically, we talked about gender identity, race, dating, and the rhetoric of MRAs. After an incredibly honest and difficult conversation, we decided to create a publication that would address the question, “What does our ideal community look like?”

We made illustrations, collages, and comics. We also wrote short stories and poems, interviewed each other, and shared recipes. The result was a 26-page book, which we perfect bound, designed a hand drawn cover for, and printed on a risograph machine. We photocopied it and made 50 copies for our launch party that night. Our zine, called “All Needs Met” was a true labour of love and a blueprint for our feminist movement.

There is incredible potential to build feminist resistance through zine-making, not only by creating relationships among feminists, but also by leveraging these relationships in order to build a broader movement against patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism. The She Said Boom symposium came out of a response to individual acts of hate, but from that we became agitated, mobilized, and created more of the kind of communities we want to see.

interview on Geek Pittsburgh

Geek Pittsburgh wrote up a great article about the Pittsburgh Zine Fair.

Although the concept of self-publishing one’s personal thoughts in pamphlet form has been around since the political and philosophical musings of Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, it wasn’t until the Twentieth Century that “zines” became a bona fide medium of their own. Starting with science fiction fandoms in the 1930s, through the Punk and Riot Grrrl movements of the 1970s and 1990s, zines have given voice to the previously voiceless and helped define the culture of their times in the process. One might think that the rise of the World Wide Web may have diminished the publication of physical zines, but in actuality the medium is still going strong in the Twenty First Century.

Although the US Postal Service was once the primary distribution method for zines, today’s creators utilize everything from independent book stores to downloading from the Internet to get their publications into the hands of the populace. Nothing beats the one-on-one approach, however, and numerous symposiums and publication expos have popped up through the years as well, including the Pittsburgh Zine Fair, which is holding its third annual congregation on Sunday, September 22, 2013, at the Union Project in Highland Park. “The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh held a Feminist Zine Symposium in the spring of 2011,” co-founder Erin Oh explained of the event’s roots. “Participants of that symposium discussed how great it would be if Pittsburgh had an annual zine fair, so we distributed an email list and developed an organizing committee to put together the first-ever Pittsburgh Zine Fair in September 2011.”

Erin Oh—who has her own zine about “feminism, education for liberation, dating, and dreams”—was first hit by the self-publishing bug in 2005 when she attended Canzine, the largest zine fair in Canada. In addition to assisting in the formation of the Pittsburgh Zine Fair, Erin Oh has also organized “She Said Boom,” a two-day feminist zine-making symposium held in Toronto during April 2013 that featured Canadian artist G.B. Jones and Carolyn Azar, lead singer of the all-woman post-punk band Fifth Column. “Zines create spaces for discussion about issues that are largely missed by mainstream media,” Erin Oh says in regards to the importance of zines. “Zines also facilitate the spread of individual creative thought and expression, and can be empowering tools for young people to develop voice and perspective.”

The scheduled participants for the third annual Pittsburgh Zine Fair are an eclectic group of authors with a wide-range of interests and narrative styles. Stories about personal relationships, travel adventures, martial arts parodies, legal guidance for activists, professional advice for sound and audio engineers, fictional fantasy tales, poetry and comics will all be available for perusing during the event. Many of the zines featured likewise defy conventional categorizing. “Past issues have centered on experiences in college radio, my love for Bill Murray and Feminism,” Laura Lane explains on the Pittsburgh Zine Fair website of Staircase Wit. “My most popular issue to date is a condensed, how-to guide for the phenomenon of Lucid Dream. In user-friendly language, I describe what Lucid Dreaming is, relay a bit of technical and historical information behind the topic as well as include cultural references and induction techniques.”

Maggie Negrete, an administrator at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, also offers a unique spin on her writing style. “Adventuring Princesses is a serial fairy tale that attempts to subvert traditional gender stereotypes within the genre by focusing on two princesses as distinct individuals and developing young women as they try to save the kingdom from the Dark Wizard and therefore, metaphorically, gain equality for women in the physical, spiritual and intellectual realms,” she states on the event’s website.

While many of the zine creators in attendance will travel to the region from such far off locales as Detroit and New Orleans, the majority of self-publishers at the Pittsburgh Zine Fair are local residents. “It is blooming!” Erin Oh says of the Steel City zine scene. “Cyberpunk Apocalypse keeps it real with zine events and hosting visiting out-of-town writers. And we’ve become a destination for touring zinesters. People of Color Zine Project stopped by the Roboto Project last year for their Race Riot tour, and Cindy Crabb stopped by with Doris Zine the year before that. Zine readings are regularly held around the city—check out the Homunculus reading series at Assemble gallery in Garfield on Saturday, September 21st from 7-9pm where several zine fair participants will be reading selections from our work!”

In addition to zine creators, Pittsburgh is also home to a number of small, independent publishers who cater to the industry, and many of them will be on hand at the Pittsburgh Zine Fair as well. Little Tired Press, for instance, publishes the monthly comics anthology Andromeda, while Wild Age Pressspecializes in books that are “experimental” in nature and have an “edge” to them. Small Press Pittsburgh, meanwhile, is a pop-up bookstand that has featured local authors, artists and self-publishers since 2008, and both the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland and the Mr. Roboto Project in Bloomfield have zine collections, adding to the unique flavor of the Steel City zine community.

Decades after science fiction fans reinvigorated the medium in the 1930s, zine publishing is still going strong despite the presence of the World Wide Web. “The Internet can never replace the satisfaction and fun that comes from creating a publication that is tangible and then organizing in public spaces to share, discuss and sell it,” Erin Oh explains. “The future of zines looks bright as long as we continue building community around self-publishing and keep tackling difficult topics through our writing.”

If the Pittsburgh Zine Fair is any indication, the future of zines does indeed look bright.

Anthony Letizia (September 19, 2013)